(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

In his many historical novels, Barry Unsworth has consistently focused on the theme of appearance versus reality. In Morality Play (1995), for example, a group of actors unashamedly converts a real incident into a theatrical fiction, while in both Sugar and Rum (1988) and Losing Nelson (1999), writer-historians search for the reality that underlies what they find are the fictions of recorded history. In The Songs of the Kings, Unsworth suggests that both history and art are false. The Greek leaders of Homeric legend are shown influencing the course of history by deceiving themselves and one another, then peddling their plausible falsehoods to a bard who is more interested in aesthetics than in truth. The end result is that the words of the bard violate the facts of history and celebrate the nobility of ignoble men.

The Songs of the Kings begins at Aulis, where the Greek ships have gathered prior to their departure for Troy. Ostensibly the mission of the Greeks is to retrieve or punish Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, for running off with the young, handsome Trojan prince Paris and to wreak vengeance on Troy for granting refuge to the lovers. In actuality, however, almost everyone in the Greek camp, from the loftiest king to the lowliest foot soldier, can hardly wait to plunder what is known to be one of the wealthiest cities in the Mediterranean world.

The Greek flotilla has been ready to set sail for a week, but the ships have been held in port by adverse winds, and there is no sign of a coming shift in wind direction. The men are beginning to quarrel among themselves. It is only a matter of time before they turn on their leaders, and the man most at risk of losing his power is the one who has had himself made commander in chief of the expedition, King Agamemnon of Mycenae. On the morning of the seventh day, Agamemnon feels that he can wait no longer. He summons Calchas to him, hoping for an explanation of his ill fortune and a quick remedy for it.

The rest of the story is common knowledge: Agamemnon decides to placate the gods by sacrificing his daughter Iphigeneia. He sails to Troy, triumphs, and returns home, only to be slain by his wife Clytemnestra, who has nursed her anger over the long years of his absence. Unsworth does not make any major changes in this outline of events. Where he differs is in his portrayal of the people involved. While Homer’s characters were heroic human beings with all-too-human flaws, almost all of Unsworth’s are unheroic and despicable.

The Songs of the Kings is structured much like a five-act drama. The first section of the novel is called “The Eagles of Zeus” because while Agamemnon was still at Mycenae, it was reported to him that two male eagles had been seen hunting together. At the time, Calchas, a diviner, had been asked to comment on the unusual phenomenon. His interpretation was a simple one and one not likely to annoy his superiors, of whom Calchas had a healthy fear. The eagles, he said, represented Agamemnon and Menelaus, and the flight of the birds over Mycenae was meant to assure the kings that their cause was just. Now, however, three men have been brought to Agamemnon with additional information. They insist that they saw those eagles swoop down on a pregnant hare, kill her, and devour her along with her unborn young. Supposedly Agamemnon’s next move will be governed by Calchas’s interpretation of these details. However, in the next section of the novel, this honest if somewhat spineless priest is shown losing his influence over Agamemnon and being replaced by malevolent men.

In “The Heavy Burden of Command,” the author traces the steps taken by Odysseus and Chasimenos as they maneuver Agamemnon into believing that his status as a great leader leaves him no choice but to sacrifice his daughter. Both men have selfish reasons for promoting the war. Chasimenos is motivated by his loyalty to Agamemnon; as a devoted civil servant, he is willing to do anything that will benefit his master. Odysseus, on the other hand, is interested only in what he can get out of the conquest of Troy; he is tired of being the ruler of a small, rocky, impoverished island, and he wants both wealth and power.

Despite the difference in their motivations, the two plotters are alike in that they are both intelligent, far more intelligent than anyone else in the novel. They are also amoral. That these two are meant to remind readers of present-day politicians is evident in their use of modern euphemisms for immoral acts. For example, after one of the...

(The entire section is 1873 words.)